Anytime I write reviews involving sports movies, particularly if they’re based on real-life incidents, I brace myself for the inevitable corrections to something I’ve said. I don’t pretend to be an expert on every subject dealt with in films, but one of the things I love about film is the way it offers you windows into every other world, into all sorts of professions, and for the two hours while watching that film, I love the feeling of understanding that world, if only for that moment.
“Moneyball” is the sort of picture that could easily be an inert piece of drama, a dry recitation of facts and events, or it could easily tip the other direction and be a goosed-up piece of over-dramatic piffle. This is not easy material to boil down to a movie, and so before I say anything else, let me offer up praise to the screenplay credited to Steven Zallian and Aaron Sorkin. No surprise that big brains like those could crack the non-fiction work by Michael Lewis, but it seems like a combination that’s just right for this material. Zallian is brilliant, but sometimes, his work can seem emotionally remote. Sorkin is equally smart, but I’ve never seen him pass up a cheap Hollywood moment if he knows it will play. Somewhere in the middle of those two sensibilities, there’s a smart, adult, emotional zone, and that’s where “Moneyball” lands.
Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is the general manager of the Oakland A’s, a baseball team that simply can’t compete financially with the major names in the sport. They point out at the start of the film that the New York Yankees, who beat the A’s in the playoffs in 2001, spent north of $120 million in payroll that year, while the A’s spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $32 million. When you have unlimited resources, it is little wonder you are able to have your pick of top talent, and after being beaten again, Beane feels like he’s got nothing left to give to the game. He can’t imagine trying to replace the players that were just hired out from under him, and he knows that he simply doesn’t have the checkbook to try to outbid anyone for the up-and-coming talent everyone else wants. He’s on the verge of giving up when he meets Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a low-level employee of the Cleveland Indians who has a big idea, a new way of approaching the hiring in baseball, a method that he believes will level the playing field and revolutionize the game.
The suspense of the film, then, is not whether the A’s will win one big game, but whether or not this system that Brand endorses has any merit at all. Beane bets big on him, and in doing so, he manages to alienate players, fans, commentators, and even his own team’s coach, Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). But he believes that there has to be some way to make things fair, and he decides to throw caution to the wind. In doing so, he and Brand find themselves in uncharted waters, completely ignoring conventional wisdom.
Appropriately enough, just before the screening, I found myself having a heated conversation with a friend about the way distributors make choices, the way films are bought and sold, and the conventional wisdom about what makes a film “worth buying.” And while I know my friend has genuine on-the-ground experience, and while I know that much of what he says is accepted as truth throughout the industry, I still feel like, more often than not, Hollywood deals in the self-fulfilling prophecy. It is easy to take a film that you think won’t make money, distribute it timidly, buy no advertising, and then point at its commercial failure as proof that the conventional wisdom is right. It is always harder to go against that accepted truth, to push a new idea, to try something different. And, yes, sometimes if you go against the accepted way of doing things, you will fail. But as “Moneyball” so beautifully illustrates, victory doesn’t have to be absolute. If you can show that there are alternative ways of doing things, then you don’t have to be the absolute winner. Simply expanding the way people think can be the victory. Billiy Beane’s team in “Moneyball” would obviously love to go to the World Series and sweep it all, but the triumph here is simply in shifting the momentum, in proving that this radical idea has some merit and might be worth something. It is worth it to do what is more difficult sometimes because you make it easier for the next person, and the person after that. Someone has to go first. Someone has to take a chance.
Brad Pitt is excellent as Beane, and he manages to give a largely internal performance that still communicates volumes. So much of the movie is about what’s going on behind his eyes, and Pitt has gotten very, very good at expressing himself through body language, through a simple look. I would point out that one of his favorite actor’s tricks to keep energy up in a scene is to eat, and in this film, it seems like Billy Beane is eating in almost every single sequence, whether it’s mixed nuts, french fries, or popcorn. That’s not a criticism… just an observation. It makes me laugh because I can see Pitt thinking about how to incorporate these mannerisms, how to add color to a particular moment. He’s great, though, and his scenes with his ex-wife (Robin Wright Penn), her new husband (a very funny Spike Jonze) and with his daughter (the charming Kerris Dorsey) are human and warm and vulnerable, Billy at his most open. The only other person who gets that close to Billy is Brand, and Jonah Hill may have just changed the course of the rest of his career with the work he does here. He is frequently funny in the film, but it never feels like he’s reaching for the joke. This is honest, well-observed work, and he has to play a smart guy who is put to the test, a theoretician given a chance to see his theory in practice. Their chemistry drives much of the movie, and there’s a certain delight in the way Beane plays off of Brand that is infectious. I hope someone figures out something else for these two to do together, because I think they’ve got a very special, very genuine energy as a duo.
The entire cast is great, though, and the highest praise I can offer to the cast is that I thought many of the athletes were playing themselves. Stephen Bishop offers up a memorable turn as David Justice, Nick Porrazzo makes a suitably smug Jeremy Giambi, and Chris Pratt, who I know primarily from “Parks And Recreation” and some time I spent onset for “Five-Year Engagement,” is quite moving and earnest as Scott Hatteberg, who gets a second chance as a professional ballplayer because of Brand and Beane’s theory.
The film is carefully modulated, and director Bennett Miller has made the six-year gap since his previous film, “Capote,” worth the wait. It is beautifully crafted, and subtle, and he never overplays a moment. There’s a real restraint to the picture that works to actually amplify the emotional moments because they feel earned, not yanked out of you at gunpoint. I am deeply impressed by what he pulled off here, and I love the natural, casual feel of Wally Pfister’s cinematography. This is all very carefully constructed, of course, but it doesn’t feel that way, and Pfister pulls off the minor miracle of making Oakland sort of lovely. That’s not easy.
I have no idea how closely this hews to reality, but ultimately, what I took away from this wasn’t a particular feeling this way or that about Beane or the A’s or even baseball. I just walked away invigorated by the idea that it pays to gamble sometimes, and that just because something is done a certain way, there’s no reason to think it can’t be done better. This is a film about faith and risk and the enormous rewards of both, and it is somehow far more commercial and inviting than I would have imagined possible. It’s a major accomplishment.
Yes… I’d even call it a home run.
“Moneyball” opens everywhere September 23, 2011.